There are several reasons why you should be interested in Fleep, Slack’s prime competitor. Apart from boasting some nice product features like incorporating emails they also seem like a cool distributed bunch. In our chat, Fleep’s CEO Henn Ruukel talks about their remote culture, shaped by experiences from building Skype.
How many employees Fleep has and where are they based?
I think the definition of employee has already become foggier as more and more people work on different terms and conditions than the usual employment agreement. Counting all people who are actively building Fleep, the current number is 14 so we’re still relatively small.
I was the first to look for co-founders and the person whom I reached out, Asko, our CTO, was based in Tartu, the second biggest city in Estonia while I’d been based in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. This meant that we weren’t ever going to be a one-location company, we would be always split between Tallinn and Tartu.
But all those 14 people live mostly here in Estonia and work from here.
How many people usually work from locations other than the offices?
We have two offices but people don’t necessarily work from them, they might work from home. Some of them do that every day, some of them once in a while but we don’t have anyone working regularly outside of Estonia.
All of us use our office space differently. Everyone has their own pattern. Four or five of us visit the office every day, but even the times when we show up and when we leave vary a lot.
I’m a morning person so I’m usually here early and leave around 5–6 in the evening. Some of the team members show up by lunch time and they tend to stay until 8–9pm. We have a few examples who don’t show up at the office at all. They only come to our quarterly meetings and work from home all the other time.
These quarterly meetings — are those regular company retreats?
We have two week cycles we call sprints and a sprint planning after every second week. We meet for spring planning either in Tallinn or Tartu and then once in a quarter we have quarterly planning. We gather somewhere in Estonia to firstly review what we have got accomplished during the last quarter and plan the next three months. Then we usually spend the rest of the day with recreational activities.
As we’re all Estonians, it all ends up with sauna of course, we’re quite addicted to the tradition of sauna here in the northern part of Europe.
What do you think is the right work and play ratio at company retreats?
I’d say 50:50. Half of the day goes to the review and planning, the other half is when we do something together, like canoeing or golfing. We usually find something that we haven’t done before, fortunately there are lots of recreational activities you can do around here.
Do you have any favourite techniques you use on the work part of the retreats, for example to increase productivity?
Nothing else aligns and motivates team better than shared goals. No matter how big the company or the team is, if people share the same goal or the same vision then that’s what drives them.
If you have issues with shared goals, that’s where you should put your focus. Once you have a misalignment of priorities within your organization, your troubles will start.
We use quarterly plannings and reviews to make sure we all understand what we were able to accomplish, what are the things we thought we could accomplish but we didn’t, and be wiser with the next quarter plans and make sure we prioritize things we all agree upon as the next quarter’s priorities.
It’s not only about me telling them what needs to be done. It’s rather coming together to a shared agreement about what’s important for us as a company, what can we do about the product, growth activities and priorities.
In my opinion, a full day event is necessary because this makes possible for people to feel that they were part of the agreement, part of the discussion. It also makes it easier to stay aligned throughout the quarter because we already remember why we decided on the important things.
What do you think are the crucial aspects of a good company retreat?
I’ll try to step out of the role of a CEO and rather think back to my times in Skype and how I, as an employee, felt. It boiled down to how much I felt that I made an impact and how much I understood the bigger picture.
And maybe also that I felt being part of the team, no matter what size that team was. If people feel disjoined or disconnected, they are just not actively participating.
That’s why I think co-locating and coming together as a team is super important, because then we can do something together. And of course, doing something fun together always aligns people, right?
What challenges do you face that are associated with being a distributed company?
Staying aligned. It depends on how the work is organized. There are probably some cases where the distributed organizations are formed in a way that different locations have less dependencies on each other.
Let’s say at Ikea, as a global chain, for people working in a Swedish shop it’s less important that they are well aligned with people working in Norway.
But in Fleep, or back in the day when we were building Skype, we were all building the same product in different locations. Eventually our combined effort was what was handed over to the users. That’s why it’s super important that we understand each other and we can communicate issues, problems and ideas between ourselves.
Of course, the closer we are to each other, the better. The ideal would be sharing the same office space, the second best is being more or less in the same timezone. It becomes way harder when you are several timezones apart. And it’s even worse if several people are in different timezones but they need to accomplish something together.
If some of us are working in Tallinn and some of us in Tartu, or even in Prague, we are pretty much active during the same chunk of the day. But if some of us were in California, it would be a difference of ten hours.
We had that in Skype so I have first-hand experience with this. It was very hard because when we were about to finish our work day here in Tallinn, they were only beginning. And since they worked in California their time window to have meetings or discuss something was very limited. Some of us were just waking up and having their first coffee while others were already thinking that they need to pick up their kids from kindergarten.
It’s just an additional challenge to overcome. Sometimes it’s needed but in cases where time zone differences are big, I’d suggest to split the work in a way that you don’t need such an active interaction between the teams.
Is this the reason why the Fleep team isn’t present in other countries?
There is no specific reason why we are still based only in Estonia, that’s just how things have played. We’ve had several very good candidates outside of Estonia but eventually it has worked out until now in a way that we are all still here. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll stay an Estonian company or Estonia-based forever, though.
I think if you succeed as a company and as a team, it’s natural that you will eventually have offices elsewhere.
What can you say about company culture at Fleep?
Our company culture is coming a lot from the Skype’s culture, at least from their early days.
It’s more or less things like be humble to others, be open to new ideas and be collaborative. Whatever we do and achieve, usually the best outcomes come from the collaboration. I’ve rarely seen someone coming up with something outstanding individually. For that, people have to be open and collaborative.
But we have to keep in mind that we are very small, the challenges arise when you reach hundred employees and more. That’s when aligning people and keeping the company culture becomes a challenge.
We don’t have any specific culture formalities like office hours. We have rather individual commitments and hold up people against them, like delivering something in a week or two, but we don’t care where you are doing the work or how are you achieving those tasks.
What is your stance on video calls?
Surprisingly enough, we almost don’t use video calls at all. We have daily stand-ups, weekly calls and sprint planning. As we’re distributed, often someone calls in, but we don’t switch on the video.
The main reason is probably that during those meetings we are all usually following our task boards rather than others’ faces on the video. We use Fleep for our task management and most of us are keeping that on the screen anyhow so the video feed is in a window somewhere behind.
There’s another use case though where we’ve used video heavily — the video bridge between Tallinn and Tartu, which actually started on day one at Fleep. The way it works is that there’s constantly an ongoing Skype video call between our two offices. We can see each other but it’s mute by default. If you want to ask something quickly someone in the other office, you can just un-mute it and as they already hear you they can respond right away.
This is clearly part of our communication and culture. But for the daily calls we use Google Hangouts and for whatever reason we don’t usually switch on the video.
Doesn’t the video bridge feel a bit Big Brother-like?
When we started Fleep, I was the only person in Tallinn, everybody else was in Tartu. For me, coming to the office in the morning felt very warm and friendly by switching on the TV and seeing other guys in Tartu. Even though I didn’t hear them I felt like a part of the team.
The video bridge works as an office extension and as the both sides can see each other it’s like a window. It doesn’t feel like someone watching you, it has been working very well for us.
Any other favorite communication or work tools that you use daily?
Fortunately for us, we are very Fleep-centric. It took about three or four months to build Fleep so it was usable by ourselves and since then we’ve been doing everything in Fleep.
We have a lot of dedicated channels and conversations for different topics, like bug channels and general product discussions. We use our task functionality to track all the sprints and development tasks and we also keep all our product specs in those conversations. We have a feature called Pinboard where you can pin messages, kind of like on a whiteboard during a conversation.
We make a lot of use out of Fleep ourselves. I think a lot of startups cannot afford that because they are not necessarily users of their product so we are lucky in that sense, and also very biased towards Fleep. We also don’t use email, I forwarded all my emails to my Fleep account a year and half ago and since then I don’t have any email client. All my email communication, both work and personal, is coming to Fleep and I’m responding from it.
How can remote workers benefit from Fleep?
Remote working is a growing trend and I think that Fleep will become an awesome tool for people who work remotely for several organizations. The main limitation of Slack, comparing to Fleep, is exactly the approach of being a part of only one team which is rarely a case with remote workers and freelancers. So Fleep makes an awesome tool for remote workers and people who work in multiple teams or organizations.
Considering the present tech and startup scene in your country, would you consider Estonia to be a particularly good place to be if you’re a distributed company?
I’m biased because I’m Estonian and I’m heavily connected to the local network in personal and work life so I’ll try to answer this from an outsider’s perspective.
Cost of living and managing an office space is relatively low, comparing to the UK, for example. The quality of life you can afford here with the same money is two or three times better than in London.
The other plus is, if you’re running a legal entity from here, all your company and government relations can be handled digitally via internet so you don’t have to visit any government offices to get started or to maintain a company. You can do everything remotely which is a strong plus for remote workers.
The minus side is a small employee market and the travel opportunities. Access to international flights is usually through Helsinki. We do have direct flights from Tallinn but the amount is very limited.
Access to capital is also something to consider. Being an Estonia based startup means that I’m competing for the attention of the same investors as those based in UK or US. Clearly startups based in Valley or in London have an advantage over me as they are perceived local to London or Valley investors. This is something startups have to keep in mind.
Overall, Estonia is a great place to start but you have to be ready that in a few years your legal entity will probably move somewhere else and maybe your HQ will have to move as well. Of course it varies and depends on many criteria — what type of business you’re in, what investors you will have and so on.
I love a lot of things in Estonia, though. I love that we’re a small country and that the nature is so close by. Maybe someone values living in a big city, but it’s not a case with us, we’re rather a small city.